Prayer is a spiritual art, so prayer forms differ according to the artist. The Encyclopedia of Catholicism lists three general categories: vocal, mental, and passive. Vocal prayer is anything that uses words—spoken, recited, or sung. It can utilize composed or spontaneous prayers. The psalms and the liturgy of the Mass are two examples of vocal prayers. Mental prayer, by contrast, is silent prayer involving the imagination. The guided-imagery method of Saint Ignatius of Loyola and the prayerful reading of scripture (lectio divina) are samples of mental prayer. Passive prayer is also known as contemplation. You don’t control or generate it; you relinquish all to it. In return the mystical encounter awaits as a pure gift of God. Passive prayer can be ecstatic, as Saint Teresa of Avila experienced it. It can also relate to suffering, as it did for Teresa’s friend Saint John of the Cross.
Another way to envision prayer-forms are two categories Franciscan friar Richard Rohr suggests: mental prayer and body prayer. The vocal and mental forms outlined above fit into Rohr’s idea of mental prayer. Body prayer by contrast means “to pray from the clay”—the vessel of the self formed from clay and divine Breath. That includes spiritual activities as diverse as walking a labyrinth or the Stations of the Cross, making a pilgrimage, praying with rosary beads, tai chi, or yoga. Depending on your level of participation in passive prayer mentioned above, these could be mental prayer or a full-body experience.
The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia gets more explicit, listing 16 prayer forms. The first bunch are communal: public (shared prayer), Eucharist (the source and summit of the faith), scripture (where God speaks), and the Divine Office (psalm-led prayer on behalf of humankind). Tre Ore, the least familiar on this roll call, is a Trinity prayer in which one hour is given to silent adoration, one to reflection and writing, and a third to group-sharing.
The MCE list includes the familiar: personal prayer, spiritual reading, silent listening, recitation (e.g., rosaries, litanies), mental prayer, contemplation, and examination of conscience. It also explores the idea of recollection (bringing God to mind throughout the day); meditation (guiding the intellect and reason); affective prayer (involving emotions); and journaling as an interactive mapping of the spiritual journey.
These prayer-forms are by no means a complete list. Consider them a place to begin.
• Numbers 6:24-26; the Psalms; Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 1:46-55, 68-79: 2:29-32
• A downloadable “User’s guide on the ways to pray” by Linus Mundy
• “Find Your Spirituality Type” quiz by Roger O'Brien
• “What's the difference between saying ‘set’ prayers and prayers in my own words?” by Alice Camille
• “How is the Mass ‘prayer’”? by Alice Camille
• Prayer and Temperament: Different Prayer Forms for Different Personality Types by Chester P. Michael and Marie C. Norrisey (Open Door, 1984)
• The Breath of the Soul: Reflections on Prayer by Joan Chittister (Twenty-Third Publications, 2009)
PRAYER is the food of faith, as one theologian put it. Christians have sought the best way to feed their faith since the disciples first asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus offers a lot of advice about how to pray in other places: Pray in secret and don’t call attention to it. Pray in groups especially when you need spiritual support. Pray often, pray briefly, and don’t multiply fancy words. Ask for what you need and you’ll get it. Pray when faced with bad spirits and difficult cases. Be watchful and prayerfully alert in times when fear may cause you to be weak.
Jesus also offered parables about effective prayer: Pray with humility and honesty, like the tax collector rather than the self-congratulating Pharisee. Be persistent in prayer, like the widow before the judge. Forgive your brother or sister before you offer your gift at the altar. Finally, Jesus gives his insistent friends a prayer that does all these things. Early Christians found it so useful they were urged to say it three times daily in the late 1st-century book of the teaching of the apostles known as the Didache. Today the “Our Father” is also prayed at every Mass, in the Liturgy of the Hours, in reciting the Rosary, and in many other devotions.
The early church father Tertullian called the Lord’s Prayer the perfect summary of the whole gospel. The heart of the prayer is an invitation to God to make the kingdom coming a present reality. The fulfillment of that kingdom is the end of all need, so we pray for what mortals need most: provisions, pardon, and protection. The prayer begins with “you” statements and ends with “we” petitions. That makes sense because faithful people must begin with submission to God’s will before we can anticipate its fulfillment in our present needs. God’s will first; then ours.
The petitions don’t imply that God has to be informed of what we need. Rather they express our confidence that God will address our needs. Jesus instructs us to begin our prayer intimately, calling on God with the familiarity of a child. Knowing the Holy Name of God presumes intimacy: In the ancient world, such knowledge gave you a certain inside track in a relationship. Invoking the kingdom to be realized “on earth as it is in heaven” brings the will of God directly into human experience. Everything about this prayer invites God to bring this world ever more closely in line with the new creation promised in Jesus.
• Matthew 5:44; 6:9-13, 33; 7:7; Mark 9:29; 14:32-38; Luke 11:1-13; 18:1-14; John 12:27-28
• The Lord’s Prayer; a presentation by Father Dennis Hamm on the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer
• The Greatest Prayer by John Dominic Crossan (HarperOne, 2010)
• The Three Greatest Prayers: Commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Apostles Creed by Saint Thomas Aquinas (Sophia Institute Press, 1998)
Ashes are an ancient sign of mortification. Often associated with the wearing of sackcloth-a harsh woven-hair fabric used for grain bags-any occasion that warranted the expression of grief, penitence, or supplication might involve scattering ashes, rolling in them, or smearing them on one's person. Such reverse adornment defined the humble spirit of the wearer, and both men and women might employ this sign in times of self-denial. In addition, the shaving of the head or beard might accompany such gestures, and fasting as well. Anyone reluctant to be signed with ashes annually might consider the alternatives!
The prophets recommended such signs when the evil of the times required it. Daniel himself adopted prayer, fasting, sackcloth, and ashes during the period of Israel's exile. In the gospels Jesus reprimands unrepentant Jewish cities by comparing them to pagan cities that would have long ago donned sackcloth and ashes in shame for similar crimes. The message is clear: A definite outward sign of penitence is a bold first step in the actual conversion of the human heart.
So Catholics begin the annual season of their repentance by adopting the mark of ashes. I say "begin": 40 days of fasting, prayer, and charity is expected to proceed from there. Many have noted that Jesus accuses the Pharisees of hypocrisy when they stand on street corners bearing the signs of fasting for all to see. Instead Jesus advises his disciples to wash their faces and anoint their heads while fasting. That is to avoid the temptation to be seen as doing good-and to be rewarded on the spot by the good opinion of others.
In a social climate impressed by the appearance of piety, it would be best to hide such signs. Modern culture, however, is more dazzled by bling, than by the rosary dangling from your rearview mirror. The effect of ashes serves more to remind oneself "that we are dust, and to dust we shall return." With the urgency of mortality clinging to us in every hour, it's wisdom to heed the call each Ash Wednesday not to waste any time but to "repent, and receive the Good News."
• St. Leo the Great on Lent, 5th century homily
• Forty Days Plus Three: Daily Reflections for Lent and Holy Week by John J. McIlhon (Liturgical Press, 1989)
• Days of the Lord: The Liturgical Year, Vol. 2: Lent (Liturgical Press, 1993)
"Pray unceasingly," Saint Paul urges his fledging communities throughout his letters. But Paul never spells out precisely how to do that. He does recommend prayers of petition (asking for what we need) and thanksgiving (giving credit where credit is due). He also models, at the start and finish of every letter, his own prayers of praise and blessing. In addition Paul often quotes hymns he either wrote himself or were circulating around the early church. He advocates that "psalms, hymns, and inspired songs" be sung regularly in a spirit of gratitude.
What we can gather from this varied advice is that both spontaneous and traditional prayers played a part in the lives of early church members. If we go back even further to the time of Jesus, we can see evidence of the same. Jesus often crept off by himself to pray in deserted places or on hilltops. But he also attended more formal synagogue services and even went up to the Temple for major feasts. The prayers of Jesus recorded in the Garden of Olives at the end of his life were quite personal and spontaneous--to say nothing about passionate.
But when his disciples asked him to teach them to pray, Jesus provided for their voiced need with a simple formula of prayer we know as the Our Father or the Lord's Prayer. It begins with praise ("hallowed be thy name"), invokes hope ("thy kingdom come"), and invites a series of petitions from the specific ("give us this day our daily bread") to the far-ranging ("deliver us from evil"). The prayer Jesus teaches also acknowledges personal responsibility for the relationship with God we are crafting by our every decision ("forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us").
Traditional Jewish prayer, particularly in the Book of Psalms, is rooted in the formulas Jesus and Paul espouse. There's room for prayers of asking and thanking, praising and hoping. There's even a prayer-style known as the lament, which is sort of like whining with a faithful conclusion.
What all this suggests is that if you have something to say to God, by all means say it. If you don't know how to begin, our tradition can supply many wonderful starting points for the conversation. But the most important thing, of course, is to engage that conversation-unceasingly!
Matthew 6:5-13; Luke 11:1-13; Ephesians 6:18-20; Philippians 4:6; Colossians 3:16; 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; see also the Book of Psalms
Articles from VISION magazine on prayer: "Five steps to better prayer" by Sister Melannie Svoboda, S.N.D. "Point and click to pray" by Carol Schuck Scheiber. Online prayer resource: Prayer Support from the Redemptorists of the Baltimore Province
Beginning to Pray by Archbishop Anthony Bloom (Paulist Press, 1988). Also available as an audiobook from St. Anthony Messenger Press.
Prayer by Joyce Rupp (Orbis Books, 2007)
Prayers from Around the World and Across the Ages by Victor M. Parachin (ACTA, 2004)
Formally known as the Way of the Cross, but popularly called the Stations, this devotion emerged not from scripture but from the practice of pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Since the time of Constantine, pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem to walk the Via Dolorosa ("Way of Sorrow") from Pilate's house to Golgotha, meditating on the suffering and death of Jesus. Depending on your guide this journey could include 18, 25, or as many as 37 different stops or "stations" of meditation.
For various reasons—distance, expense, and shifting political landscapes among them—it wasn't always possible for people to get to Israel. Yet the grace available in "taking up the cross" with Jesus was deemed valuable enough to seek a way to make this pilgrimage locally accessible to the faithful of Europe.
That led the Franciscans, in whose stewardship the holy sites of Jerusalem were entrusted, to franchise the Via Dolorosa in first one then several sites in Europe. "The Seven Falls of Jesus" consolidated this early Way of the Cross, three of which are preserved in our current Fourteen Stations. (Four of the meetings along the way—with Jesus' Mother, Simon of Cyrene, Veronica, and the Holy Women of Jerusalem—are considered remnants of the other Falls once observed.)
By the 16th century papal support for this devotion increased the demand for Stations in monasteries, convents, and churches. They became so popular that it would be hard to find a church, chapel, or oratory today that doesn't have the Way of the Cross erected within its walls or on its grounds in the open air. Fourteen Stations became established as the standard by the 18th century, and the Stabat Mater hymn (At the Cross Her Station Keeping) has become the traditional song for public devotions.
While images of each event often accompany the Stations, they are not required. The actual Station is represented by the cross itself, to be made of wood. The image may be fashioned of any material. Some artists have added a 15th Station of the Resurrection to create theological balance; others have rewritten the Stations to represent only scripturally based events. This devotion remains a vibrant way to embrace the spirit of pilgrimage and to contemplate how to "take up the cross" where we live.
See the Passion accounts in Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 18-19
www.usccb.org/nab/stations.htm (alternative Stations prayed by Pope John Paul II)
The New Stations of the Cross: The Way of the Cross According to Scripture by Megan McKenna (Image Books, 2003)
Walk with Jesus: Stations of the Cross by Henri J. M. Nouwen (Orbis Books, 1990)
The Way of the Cross with the Women of the Gospels by Sister Ruth Fox, O.S.B. (Liturgy Training Publications)
Let’s start with a big word: soteriology, or the meaning of God’s saving actions. What are we saved from, and what are we saved for? When most Christians say they’re saved, often they mean “safe from the possibility of going to hell.” For Catholics the usual formula for salvation gets boiled down to this: The danger of hell comes from original sin. Original sin is washed away by baptism. Baptism is a sacrament in Christianity. The Catholic Church contains the only full expression of Christianity. The bottom line: There is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church.
I don’t question the statements in that chain of logic. But additional links in the chain allow room at the conclusion for the equally Catholic mystery of divine grace. For one, salvation is God’s work, not a human enterprise. You and I are in no position to save anyone, and we don’t want to presume to tie God’s hands either. Although we might say where salvation is readily available, it would be arrogant to say God can choose no other channels of operation. Being divine, God is utterly free.
God’s freedom is a huge consideration. Another is the idea that hell is all we need saving from. What about absurdity, which arises from the reality of death? The life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus imbue mortal life with purpose and destiny that rescues us from despair. And what about the baptism available through other Christian traditions? The Roman church admits baptism as a valid sacrament when it uses the formula of the Trinity (“In the name of the Father . . . .”).
Finally, church teaching maintains that everyone is “called by God’s grace to salvation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 836) and that “those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the gospel of Christ or his church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation. Nor shall divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to live a good life” (Lumen Gentium, no. 16).
Isaiah 45:22; 49:6; 52:10; Luke 3:6; 9:24; 1 Timothy 2:3-4
“Salvation” in The Collegeville Pastoral Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. (Liturgical Press, 1996)
Like all parts of creation, time can be harnessed for a sacramental purpose: to direct us to the holy. The Liturgy of the Hours is a ritual that engages the sacred character of time and helps us participate in the sanctification of each day to God’s purposes. Time is holy. We’re more mindful of that as we pray the Liturgy of the Hours.
Praying throughout the day has a long history in the church. The practice is rooted in the synagogue prayer which Jesus attended regularly. Jesus teaches his followers to pray and models frequent habits of prayer. In Acts the apostles gather for daily prayer with other believers. Saint Paul urges us to pray “unceasingly.” According to the early church theologian Tertullian, by the early 200s A.D. Christians were trying to do just that. They gathered for morning and evening prayer. They supplemented these communal moments with private prayer at rising and upon retiring and in between at the third, sixth, and ninth hours. They even interrupted their sleep to pray once during the night. These hours were identified with events in the life of Jesus. The midnight prayer, for instance, reminded them that Jesus would return one day “like a thief in the night.”
That was a tiresome schedule for most people with day jobs! Eventually two forms developed: monastic prayer and cathedral prayer. Monks and cloistered nuns might continue to keep the hours described above. Most Christians gathered for morning and evening prayer (matins and vespers) daily. Other hours were optional and private as time permitted. Yet even the people’s cathedral prayer became more formalized and gradually came to be viewed as the property of clergy. Lay folk abandoned it in favor of simpler prayer styles like the rosary.
The Second Vatican Council sought to reclaim this ancient and valuable prayer for the whole church. The council reaffirmed that clergy need not be present for the faithful to gather to celebrate the Hours. Simplified (and less expensive) versions of the Liturgy of the Hours in single-volume format have made this prayer style even more inviting. Personally I consider the years I’ve spent praying the Hours the most fruitful season of my life as a person of faith. This prayer reminds me that every day is a gift from God, every hour an opportunity for grace.
• Matthew 5:44; 6:9-13; Luke 4:16; 6:28; 11:2-4; 18:1; Acts of the Apostles 2:42; 3:1; 20:36; 21:5; Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
• Universalis offers the Liturgy of the Hours online
• Christian Prayer: The Liturgy of the Hours (Catholic Book Publishing, 1999)
• Practical Guide for the Liturgy of the Hours by Shirley Darcus Sullivan (Catholic Book Publishing)
• A Companion to the Liturgy of the Hours: Morning and Evening Prayer by Shirley Darcus Sullivan (Catholic Book Publishing, 2004)
Although ubiquitous now, the image known as Divine Mercy is a relative newcomer on the Catholic devotional scene. It originated with Maria Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938), Poland’s “Apostle of the Divine Mercy.” With only three years of formal education, Maria Faustina was hired as a domestic servant while a teenager. But the “bright lights” she’d seen in prayer from a young age continued during her employment, eventually drawing her toward religious life. Entering the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, Maria Faustina served as cook, gardener, and doorkeeper—jobs reserved for the humblest members of a community. For the next half dozen years she continued to experience visions, prophecies, and “internal stigmata”: a spiritual sharing in Christ’s sufferings with no physical mark.
In 1931 Sister Faustina had a vision unparalleled by those that had gone before: She saw Jesus clothed in white, one hand raised in blessing, the other at his breast. From his body two radiant streams flowed, one red, the other pale. Faustina felt called to recreate this image with the signature “Jesus, I trust in you.” Her spiritual director procured an artist to reproduce what she saw in her vision. Pope John Paul II canonized Faustina in 2000 and established the Second Sunday of the Easter season as Divine Mercy Sunday in accordance with her revelation, heightening the familiarity of this image.
In the gospel for this same Sunday, the Octave (eighth day) of the Easter celebration, Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit to disciples who had so recently deserted their Lord in his darkest hour—a gift brimming with mercy when you think about it. An additional reading for this feast reminds us of “the water and the blood” that flowed from the side of Jesus on the cross. The beams of red and white light radiating in the Divine Mercy image are thought to be reminders of these signs. The white light recalls the water of baptism, which by the mercy of God redeems us from original sin. The red light represents the cup of the Eucharist, Christ’s blood shed for our redemption.
On Divine Mercy Sunday we recall how the compassion of God restores us to life through these sacramental actions. What was once revealed to a humble Polish nun in this benevolent image remains a moving portrait of the ever-present mercy of God, radiating relentlessly from the heart of Christ.
• How to recite the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy
• Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska (Marian Press, 2003)
• Faustina, Saint for Our Times: A Personal Look at Her Life, Spirituality, and Legacy by George Kosicki, C.S.B. (Marian Press, 2010)
• John Paul II: The Great Mercy Pope by George Kosicki, C.S.B. (Marian Press, 2006)
• The Chaplet of Divine Mercy in Song [audio CD], the Marian Helpers and others (Marian Press, 2005)
The rosary is a method of prayer, not a mandate. It doesn’t hold the weight of a precept of the church, like the one that obliges Catholics to gather for Mass each Sunday. Like the Stations of the Cross, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, or daily scripture reading, I think of it as an offering of the church: a way to grow closer to God and the divine mysteries.
So what’s to be gained by this particular prayer form? The rosary supplies a healthy appreciation of Mary’s role in Catholic identity: the whole-souled human response to God's invitation that she embodies so beautifully. Mary is the realization of our vocation to “be church.” She is what we must become. Mary shows us how discipleship is done. But she’s not to be confused with a celestial celebrity. She's better than that. She's the one who assures us that saying yes to God, fully and completely, is possible. Her story and her destiny shine a light on human potential in relationship to God. We, too, yearn to become “full of grace.”
The rosary offers a unique view of the gospels through the heart of the woman from Nazareth. Mary was the first to ponder the greatest events of salvation history. Through her eyes, we reflect on these moments of joy, light, sorrow, and glory and learn to appreciate life’s sacred dimensions. Birth and death, joy and grief, expectation and loss are not only details of our humanity but mysteries connected to sin and grace. We reclaim all the hours of our experience as holy when we pass these simple beads through our hands.
The rosary multiplies the avenues of prayer. It's Scripture meditation, petition, song of praise, and instruction in the faith all at once. Pope Pius XII called it a "compendium of the entire gospel" presented in jewel-like cameos. Blessed John Henry Newman declared that the rosary provides us with a way of "holding in our hands all that we believe." Silence and vocal prayer are the rosary’s alternating energies. If we race through it, we miss the graced encounter that lurks between the beads. Pope John Paul II declared that a "rosary personality" is a witness against violence, injustice, arrogance, and intolerance in any form. In which case we might hope more folks will take up the practice of the rosary.
• The Rosary: Mysteries of Joy, Light, Sorrow, and Glory by Alice Camille (ACTA Publications, 2003)
• The Rosary Prayer by Prayer: How and Why We Pray the Christ-Centered Rosary of the Blessed Mother by Mary K. Doyle (ACTA Publications, 2006)